Crimes Against Humanity

By Lori Baker '86 A.M. / January / February 2002
July 1st, 2007
A native of Tel Aviv who studied at Oxford University, Omer Bartov is all too familiar with terrorism. "On September 11," says Bartov, the John P. Berkelund

Distinguished Professor of European History, "I was scheduled to teach this class, and I taught it. I'm from Israel. I think when terrorism happens, you go on with your life."

By coincidence, Bartov was teaching a new course that day: History 135, Modern Genocide and Other Crimes Against Humanity. In it Bartov examines not only the Nazi genocide of Jews, gays, and Gypsies, but the Armenian genocide of 1915, the German colonial genocide in southwest Africa, the 1994 Hutu slaughter of nearly one million Tutsis in Rwanda, and a number of other twentieth-century atrocities. His purpose is to help students come to grips with the inhuman acts that humans sometimes inflict on one another. "It is important to know about these events because they are part of our century," Bartov says, adding that, for example, if President Clinton's advisers had been better informed about genocide, they might have urged that he do more to prevent the one that was developing in Rwanda. But, Bartov adds, the temptation to look away was too great.

In fact, Bartov tells students - 192 of whom signed up for his class - such failures of insight and action, along with the tedium of everyday routine, are what make genocides possible. State-sponsored genocides, he explains, aren't like murders committed in passion under cover of darkness; they are acts bureaucratically organized and carried out. Genocide's managers are normal, rational, well-trained people, the kind of people who, under different circumstances, would seem to be model citizens. This bureaucratic aspect of genocide means that few people have the complete picture of what's under way.

"People working at the railways in Nazi Germany loaded Jews onto cattle cars," he says, "but they knew nothing about what happened to them. All they knew was that the people went away and they didn't come back." From today's perspective, such obliviousness seems paradoxical, a kind of willful, and perhaps wishful, na"vet}. But in Nazi Germany it was utterly necessary to Hitler's cause. "Successful genocide calls for the opposite of evil," Bartov says. "It calls for organization, division of labor, orders sent from top to bottom."

How do such genocides develop? Bartov tells his students during a discussion section that understanding them "entails understanding that your whole cultural framework has collapsed, that there's a fault, a break, in your own civilization." A genocide, he stresses, is not the same thing as a war crime, which is technically a violation of the laws of war codified in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. As later spelled out in the 1945 Charter of the International Military Tribunal, war crimes are such things as the murder, ill treatment, or deportation of civilians in occupied territory; the murder, ill treatment, or deportation of prisoners of war; the killing of hostages; the plunder of public or private property; the wanton destruction of municipalities; and any devastation considered "militarily unnecessary." War crimes, as is clear from these examples, take place during a declared war between recognized states.

But in 1977 the definition of war crimes was broadened to include similar acts taking place within a single nation, as during times of civil war. What, then, to make of the actions of Stalin in the Soviet Union or Pol Pot in Cambodia, whose crimes don't technically meet the war-crimes definition because they took place in the absence of war? This is where the definition of a genocide begins. Genocides target particular national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups for systematic destruction. "There is a clear distinction between war crimes and genocide," Bartov, speaking into a microphone, told his students in Hunter Auditorium one day this fall, "but there is a relationship between the two."

Indeed, he says, war crimes may signal the beginning of a genocide. Often there is a steady movement from random criminal acts by rogue soldiers to war crimes sanctioned by the state to planned genocide. In Nazi Germany, for example, the military became increasingly involved in planned war crimes even before the Holocaust. The German invasion of the Soviet Union, Bartov explains, included a deliberate campaign of murdering civilians and destroying property. The next step was Hitler's "final solution." "Gradually," Bartov concludes, "genocide is legitimized by the inclusion of the military."

Unfortunately, the creation of a new nation-state can be a trigger for genocide. The transition of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish state, Bartov believes, was a key factor in the Armenian genocide, for example. "The Armenians were not Turks; they were not Muslims," he tells the class. "They were seen as an obstacle to the creation of a homogenized, unified state." The aftermath of colonialism can also include genocide, Bartov explains, as was the case in Rwanda. "Europeans introduce the idea that there are two categories of people, one superior to the other," he explains. Once the colonizers withdraw, though, native populations who think of themselves as superior may turn on groups they now see as inferior. Such dehumanization can be the precursor to mass murder.

To help his students grapple with such difficult material, Bartov has them read first-person accounts written by both victims and perpetrators. His course also includes clips from documentaries and propaganda films, as well as a Web site with links to pertinent documents. In this way, genocides and war crimes from Germany, Japan, Cambodia, Africa, and the Soviet Union are described in vivid, first-person detail. The approach is a powerful one, says Sarah Cowan '03, a student in the class. "I spent the summer in Rwanda," she says, "so the topic of genocide is very important to me, and the section on Rwanda was especially intense."

The events of September 11 gave the course an unexpected focus and sense of urgency. Although Bartov went on with his planned material during the September 11 class, at the next meeting he opened up the session to discussion of the attacks. His own view is that the terrorist attacks were not war crimes - there was no declared war - but, he says, "crimes against humanity, crimes against the idea of a shared humanity, and Osama bin Laden could be tried for that."

Bartov listened closely to his students' views. "They both made me happy and worried me," he says. "I think it is an extraordinarily American phenomenon that thousands of people were killed and these young, smart students ask, ԗWhy do people hate us, that they would do this to us?' " What worries him, he adds, was the absence of justified anger. "I believe there are crimes, war crimes, that can't be addressed just by looking into the origin of things," he says. "People don't understand that sometimes politics isn't enough. Sometimes you have to go and fight. It worries me for America that people don't realize this."

Hard realities are precisely what History 135 is all about. Bartov's purpose, he says, is to help students see that "the twentieth century was the century when crimes against humanity reached unprecedented heights." Such a sobering perception, he hopes, will help Brown graduates understand and identify the conditions under which atrocities may develop. "Brown students are special people who often end up in important positions," he says. "I want them to know about genocide, about the special circumstances that lead to it, so that maybe someday they can apply that knowledge and have an influence on moderating this phenomenon."


Lori Baker is a BAM contributing editor.
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